After years of under-fulfilled promise, breath tests for cancer, liver disease, and respiratory conditions appear to be taking off with UK biotech Owlstone Medical raking in almost €50M (£42M) in an oversubscribed Series D funding round.
The round, whose original target was about €43M, was led by the Hong Kong-based Horizons Ventures and was joined by a number of unnamed new investors from the US, Asia, and the Middle East. It increased the total capital raised to date by the company to €128M (£109M) and earned Horizons a seat on the company’s board.
The idea that breath tests can be used for diagnostics is over a decade old—one historical focus has been the use of dogs to sniff out cancer. Ever since, scientists have been struggling to construct devices that can reliably do the same. Each breath sample is unique and carries information about the biochemical processes, including disease processes, throughout the body—yet collecting samples properly and analyzing them accurately has proven elusive time and again.
“Breath-based diagnostics hold tremendous promise, the surface of which has barely been scratched,” Owlstone’s CEO, Billy Boyle, told me. “What has held the space back — save for a few eNose approaches that deploy one or a small number of sensors to specific chemicals in a limited range of clinical applications — is that the complete workflow from sample collection through analysis is challenging.”
Owlstone uses breath sampling cartridges and sophisticated analytics to take on this challenge, and currently provides research services to pharmaceutical and academic partners. The company plans to use the funding to help it develop its technology further and commercialize a pipeline of breath tests that can diagnose lung cancer, liver disease, and respiratory and gastrointestinal conditions in the clinic.
Owlstone is one of several companies exploring and expanding the field of breath diagnostics. The Dutch company Breathomix has been working for years on devices that can sniff out lung cancer. US-based Cairn Diagnostics is already producing consumer devices that test for gastroparesis, a digestive condition characterized by delayed gastric emptying.
A common theme with breath testing is that developers seek to capture and measure volatile organic compounds, or the more volatile chemicals produced during metabolism, which are exhaled with breath. Most often, they use mass spectrometry to analyze the results, charging the molecules captured and forcing them to pass through magnetic fields, with each compound charting a unique path or signature.
The Covid-19 pandemic provided a big challenge to developers of breath tests, as many clinical trials ground to a halt in the early waves and concerns about the spread of the respiratory virus spiraled. However, a number of breath test developers have mobilized their equipment to detect Covid-19, including Owlstone, Breathomix, and the Israeli firm NanoScent.
The pandemic has also brought increased investment into biotech stocks and has boosted revenues for many diagnostics companies. The advantages of a non-invasive, quick, and inexpensive breath test for the early diagnostics of countless conditions including Covid-19, cancer, and heart disease are hard to miss for doctors, scientists, and investors alike.
“This is the beginning of a trend,” said Guillermo Vidal-de-Miguel, the founder and CEO of the Spanish biotech Fossil Ion Tech, which also produces breath diagnostics devices. “As we instrument developers clear the path to produce reliable data, it is only natural that breath analysis will become more mainstream. Many research groups and startups are making great progress in the field. Investors will eventually learn about them.”
Cover image via Elena Resko